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Trouble Making in Gujarat India

During the month of February (2011) I visited India. Why India? People go to India for different reasons, many are attracted by its cultural and natural diversity, or for a spiritual journey, with the aim of getting a new yoga certificate, etc. Last year I also visited India, that time organising the International Conference - “Nonviolent Livelihood Struggle and Global Militarism: Links & Strategies” - where I had the opportunity of working together with the people who would again host me, this time for a full month, and open their doors for me to live and follow them around wherever they went. Initially my hosts were my dearest friends Anand, Michael and Swati, but it got extended to the whole Mozda collective, Daniel, Krishnakant, Lakhanbhai and many others. Last year I was very impressed by the work of Anand, Michael and Swati (in short “trouble makers”) that I decided that it would be good to use my sabbatical month with them. I was particular interested in how you combine doing resistance work with constructive programme and all these within a day-to-day life reflecting this ethos.

My destination was the State of Gujarat, a state that represents in the most dramatic ways two critical aspects of modern India – Hindu fundamentalism and extreme capitalism. In 2002 there were extreme acts of violence against Muslims in Gujarat, with around 2000 Muslims killed. Gujarat has suffered from intensive “development” policies making it the most industrialised state in the country, which has had huge impact on the livelihood of local communities.

The Mozda Collective and PSS (Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti – Environment Protection Group / Environment Defence Team) which are the two main bodies where the “trouble makers” are involved, have been active struggling in Gujarat for well over 20 years, for the right to livelihood and the diversity of local communities. 20 years ago Swati and Michael moved to live in Mozda a tribal village in the Narmada district. Mozda was my base point during my stay in India.

Around 100 families live in Mozda, all members of the Vasava tribe. Swati and Michael went to live there 20 years ago with the aim of learning about tribal life and to live with a low footprint. They told me it took them 3 years to feel welcomed in Mozda, as at first people were sceptical of outsiders wanting to move to their village without an interest in making money from it. Both speak several Indian languages including Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi and Bengali. The local dialect is a mixture of Gujarati and Marathi so it only took them a few months to learn the language. For 5 years they “rented” a house in Mozda, rented in quotes, as there is no real sense of rent in commercial terms in Mozda.

After 5 years and as an agreement of the village, they were allocated a small piece of land in the village that belongs to the state. Not being Vasava they don't have the right to own land in the village. In this land they built a house in the same style as the other houses in Mozda. The construction is made out of teak wood pillars, walls of bamboo covered with mud and manure, floor also of mud and manure. The houses don't have windows, mostly because it makes building a lot easier. To build Michael and Swati's took nearly four months, and many members of the village helped in the process. It is appropriate to say that Swati and Michael's house does have some differences from the rest of the houses in the village. To start with, it has toilets and a room for bathing, it also has a kitchen table instead of cooking on the floor. The house is connected to the electrical grid, which is rather unstable, so the house also has electricity run from solar panels, which provides enough electricity to light the house and run a small computer and a “top of the range printer”.

There is also a wind mill which now is not connected to the house as Michael is trying a new model, but for years there has been a wind mill that supplied with electricity up to six houses. The work of solar cookers and wind mills is one area of work of the Mozda collective. Other work done by the Mozda collective includes the construction of stone walls to stop land erosion during the monsoon season, which has meant the villagers can have better crops. For many years there was a lot of work done to get a Forest Rights Act (Scheduled Tribes & Other Forest Dwellers' Act) - a law to confer rights to land which adivasis traditionally cultivated for centuries but never had titles / ownership because of their oral history and the introduction of paper records by the British. Swati and Michael have also carried basic medical training which means they can assist in basic illness and also supply a certain number of medications.

The village lives basically off agriculture for self-consumption. They grow several different grains and vegetables. Some families also have cows that provide milk for the community. According to Michael over the last ten years the community has seen huge changes, first many people have left the village to become teachers, and then come back with money, that they have used to build houses made out of concrete and even installed digital TV, the digital TV has had huge implication in the villages, as showing a complete new world and created new expectations. The introduction of the concept of financial wealth has consequences which are difficult to imagine.

The work in the village has to do with developing alternatives way of living and also what Gandhi called, Constructive Programme - according to Gandhi, nonviolent social change requires building a new society in the shell of the old. But for the “trouble makers” alternative living is not enough - there is a need to struggle against this destructive system. Hence the other area of implication of the “trouble makers” is the support of nonviolent local struggles. This work has as starting point a deep criticism of the dominant model of "development", where people are at the service of the economy instead of the economy serving the people, and where development equals economic growth. The efforts here have been to support local resistance, as most “development” projects are located where farmers and adivasis (indigenous) people live.

The main struggles of PSS - the name given to the group of people working together supporting local nonviolent resistance - include resistance to the construction of the Narmada dam, which is one of the major dams in India, and which caused the displacement of at least 25,000 people from their homes and their sources of livelihood. The dam was sold to the people of Gujarat as a sign of progress and the answer to all water problems. In the end most of their promises to the people of Gujarat have not been fulfilled and to date the dam is not completely finished, as the constructors don't want to honour the agreements to compensate people whose villages were flooded.

Today they have three main struggles:
1) Opposition to the River Linking Project (Southern Gujarat) which is a series of 7 dams to be all interlinked. The main reason for this project is that while pushing for the Narmada dam the government made so many promises that could not honour in terms of water supply that they now need a series of new dams for it. The project is still at the assessment stage, and members of the several villages to be affected have already said that they will not even allowed in the villages the people who have to carry out the studies for the viability of the dams. The fact that the resistance is starting at an early stage of the project gives good hope for its success.
2) Opposition to the construction of a Nuclear Power Plant in Jaspara & Mithi Virdi villages near Alang shipbreaking yard, Bhavnagar district in west Gujarat, by the sea. The area where the plant is meant to be located is an area particularly good for agriculture, the area is also famous for their delicious mangoes. Most members of the village oppose the plant, and there have been a number of rallies and demonstrations against it, to put pressure on the authorities to not allow its construction. Members of PSS are deeply involved in the coordination of the resistance to the nuclear power plant, playing a vital role in bringing together different sectors. As I write, PSS is also working on the publication in Gujarati of a book on nuclear power, to contribute to the argument against the construction of the plant.
3) Opposition to the construction of a cement plant, which will be located in the same district as the nuclear plant, so there have been important efforts to unite the struggles. As part of the resistance to the cement plant, in the first days of March they had a yatra through the villages, to bring in more momentum to the resistance.

Within the “trouble makers” the idea is to resist specific projects while being clear of the bigger picture of the destructiveness of the economic model.

The movement of which the “trouble makers” are part is called Sarvodaya which is a term meaning 'universal uplift' or 'progress of all'. The term was first coined by Gandhi as the title of his 1908 translation of John Ruskin's tract on political economy, Unto This Last, and Gandhi came to use the term for the ideal of his own political philosophy. Later Vinoba Bhave, embraced the term as a name for the social movement in post-independence India which strove to ensure that self-determination and equality reached all strata of India society. A key text to understand Sarvodaya is Gandhi's "Hind Swaraj".

The ideological base of the “trouble makers” derives from the Sarvordaya and Bhoodan (land gift) movement, initiated by Vinoba Bhave. Bhoodan was a movement where Vinoba and his followers walked thousand of miles visiting land owners asking them to gift a seventh of their land, with the message, consider us like your seventh child. With this message Bhoodan managed to give land to small farmers to extend their holdings by more than 4000 km2. Talking to Anand he said that he sees the work they do today as a continuation of Bhoodan.

In 1940 Vinoba was chosen by Gandhi to be the first Individual Satyagrahi (an Individual standing up for Truth instead of a collective action) against the British rule. It is said that Gandhi envied and respected Bhave's celibacy, a vow he made in his adolescence, in fitting with his belief in the Brahmacharya principle. Vinoba gave great importance to individual transformation, saying that 2/3 should be personal transformation and 1/3 collective one. The gathering was three days of intense spiritual reflection, which helped me to better understand the Bhoodan and Gandhian movement and at the same time confirm that spiritualism is not for me. I could take and learn from their history and how they carry on their struggle first by looking at their own lifestyles, and how to transform the society we need first to change how we live in it. But I understand that we live in community so if I focus on how I live, I have to look at how I live in interrelation with others. I feel that when the emphasis is purely spiritual, particularly in the case Bhoodan, it focuses too much in the personal journey and sacrifices, missing out the connection with the wider community.

In many ways Gandhi no longer belongs to India. Meaning that Gandhi's message goes well beyond India as people have taken his message to their own reality all over the world. But at the same time Gandhi no longer belongs to India, because there is very little left of Gandhi in India. A country so obsessed with economic growth and becoming an economic and military power and where the concept of small is beautiful can not be further away. The ideas of Gandhi are much of a challenge today to the western world as they are to the Indian society itself.

For me as a staff member of War Resisters' International - an international pacifist network - going to India was an opportunity to learn about the roots of nonviolence and also to go to a place which is a point of inspiration and reference for many in WRI. In my everyday work I'm working with groups in different parts of the world, and always trying to find the international connection to everything. My time in India brought me back to the importance of local organising, of doing the leg work in your own community. The importance of a long lasting engagement with your own community, where you build trust among their members and where you are just another one of them. For social change to happen you need the community to lead the struggle, where leading organisers can facilitate and provide tools for the community to mobilise, but change will not come without a grass-root based movement.

The issue of how as society we can build alternative ways of living to the dominant system is a big question for which I'm searching for answers after my time in India. How can we implement in large societies economic models which don't devastate our planet and where we are not determined by the capitalist obsession with growth? As presented in Gandhi's Hind Swaraj, can we live without railways, lawyers, hospitals? According to Gandhi they are the reflection of the civilisation in which we live, and which is so destructive. For me it is almost impossible to imagine a world without them, and think it is very likely I wouldn't be sitting where I am at the moment without them, but still: is this the society we want to live in? I don't know, do you?

Javier Gárate